We have reached the NFL postseason and one of the oldest non-divisional rivalries in the NFL, the Packers and the New York Giants.
The Packers’ and Giants’ postseason history dates back to the Don Hutson years, when the Packers went 2–1 in NFL Championships (Giants 23–17 in 1938, Packers 27–0 in 1939 and 14–7 in 1944). The first two NFL championships of Vince Lombardi were over his former employer, 37–0 in 1961 and 16–7 in 1962. And then there was the 23–20 overtime abomination four years ago, the last game of Packer quarterback Brett Favre.
The New York Times appears to have some regard for their home team’s opponent:
The phone rang well after midnight in the Sports department. It was January 2008, and the Giants had beaten the Packers in overtime in the N.F.C. championship game.
A Packers fan was on the line, calling from a bar, after having had a few.
But he wasn’t angry. He was calling to congratulate the Giants and Giants fans. He said the Giants had won fair and square, had won the line of scrimmage, and on behalf of friends at the bar and of Packers fans, he wanted to wish the team well.
(He made a joke about not being so kind if the Vikings had beaten the Packers.)
Nothing like that phone call had happened in my time in our office and hasn’t happened since.
Fans must marvel at the NFL’s ability to rotate its playoff teams. Six of the 12 2011 playoff teams — the Packers (making only their third consecutive playoff appearance), New Orleans, Atlanta, New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh —played in the 2010 playoffs. That means six teams are new — San Francisco, the Giants, Detroit (visiting the playoffs for the first time since 1991), Houston (making the Texans’ first playoff visit in franchise history), Denver and Cincinnati. That also means six 2010 playoff teams didn’t make the 2011 playoffs — Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Indianapolis, Kansas City and the New York Jets. Yet, since the Packers returned to regular playoff visits in 1993, only in 1999 have neither the Packers nor the Giants made the postseason.
I sarcastically called the 2011 Packers the worst 15–1 team ever because of the number of complaints about their defense, irrespective of the fact that their defense did not cost them a single game this season. Yards do not show up on a standard stadium scoreboard; points do. And as noted here before, the best predictor of winning an NFL title over the past 21 season is point differential; in 15 of the past 21 seasons, the team that finished first or second in point differential won the Lombardi Trophy. The Packers finished second in point differential last season and this season.
One sign of the Packers’ regular-season dominance is the fact that the Packers beat every NFC playoff team (twice in Detroit’s case) except the one team they didn’t play, San Francisco, plus Denver from the AFC. To paraphrase the financial types, though, regular-season performance does not necessarily predict playoff results, as the Packers showed by losing to Minnesota (who they beat twice in the regular season) in the 2004 playoffs, the Giants in the 2007 playoffs, and Arizona in the 2009 playoffs.
NFL observers have been comparing the Giants’ recent play to the 2007 Giants, which after a so-so regular season had to win playoff games on the road against higher-seeded teams before upsetting New England in Super Bowl XLIII. Grantland’s Charles P. Pierce:
It has been a revelatory month for the Giants, who are now playing better defense than anyone in the league. [Osi] Umenyiora and Justin Tuck are both back from nagging injuries. (Tuck had a come-to-Jesus meeting with coach Tom Coughlin a few weeks back that may have turned the entire season around.) The improvement in the front seven has taken the pressure off a dodgy New York secondary, which played with great confidence [against Atlanta], jamming the fleet Atlanta receivers and busting [quarterback Matt] Ryan’s timing to hell and gone. And on the other end of that defensive line is Jason Pierre-Paul, a man with no discernable last name, who might be the best defensive player in the NFL. Watching him play for the first time is utterly revelatory, like the first time you saw Tim Lincecum paint a corner, or Kevin Durant leave a defender groping at the air. You jump out of your seat when he makes a play, even in the relative anonymity of the defensive line. And with all that, he’s still incredibly raw. “It’s still amazing,” New York’s Justin Tuck told ESPN’s Johnette Howard recently, “what he doesn’t know.”
The more interesting comparison is to last year’s Packers, which had to win their last two regular-season games and then beat, in order, the third-, first- and second-seeded teams in the NFL on the road to get to Super Bowl XLV. The Packers’ three 2010 playoff opponents were all teams the Packers had played in the regular season.
The fact that the 2007 Packers beat the Giants in the regular season but lost in the NFC championship is an exception to the way Packer things usually are, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Since ’09, the Packers are 10-3 in rematch games against opponents, including 7-2 in the second or third meeting with their NFC North brethren. Before ’09, they were 6-4 under McCarthy – the only playoff loss the NFC Championship Game against the Giants – making them 16-7 overall in rematches.
McCarthy said last week that his staff believes it comes up with superior game plans when it meets a team for the first time, but the record obviously shows that it does pretty well the second time, too. Often, it’s just a case of the coaches noticing areas where they could have done better and adjusting accordingly.
The Packers finished 15–1 despite giving up the most yards in the NFL this season. Some claim that means the Packers have a terrible defense. If they’re saying that about the Packers, they also need to say that about the AFC’s number one seed, New England, which finished next to last in defensive yardage. And yet both the Packers (the first team to give up the most yardage and yet get a conference number one seed) and the Patriots were in the middle of the NFL pack in the more important statistic, points given up.
Why are the two worst defenses the two top seeds? Tuesday Morning Quarterback has an answer:
Green Bay and New England not only finished at the top of the heap with bad defenses statistically, they are on a combined 48-7 streak. Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships? …
Obviously, New England and Green Bay have top offenses, ranked second and third statistically, after New Orleans. What jumps out about the Packers and Patriots is their yards per pass attempt. Green Bay gains 9.3 yards per attempt, the NFL’s best, while New England gains 8.6 yards per attempt, second-best. The most efficient rushing team this season, Carolina, gained 5.4 yards per attempt, and finished with a losing record. The second-most efficient rushing team, Minnesota, with 5.2 yards per attempt, finished 3-13. Gaining the most yards per try with passing plays is the winning football formula of the moment. …
Are Green Bay and New England of 2011 flukes? Both pass the ball with such efficiency that it doesn’t seem to matter how many yards their defenses allow. Both often jump to big leads and don’t care if their defenses give up yardage late. In the 2010 season, the Chargers finished first on defense and failed to make the playoffs — take that, purists!
Defense is not about how many yards you give up. It is not entirely about how many points you give up, either. It is about making one more play than the opponent’s offense. That explains why, despite being dead last in yardage, the Packer defense was 14th in points given up. The “one more play” was often an interception, in which the Packers led the NFL. (Ask San Diego’s Philip Rivers or Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.) Turnovers are how yards don’t become points.
Another point in the Packers’ favor is not just their home field advantage, but the traditional home field advantage of the AFC’s and NFC’s top two seeds. While the Giants were holding off Atlanta, the Packers spent the past two weeks fixing various things and preparing for the two teams. That’s why the biggest home field advantage is in the second round of the playoffs, not the wild card round and not the conference championship round.
There is one other thing that must be brought up. That is the death of Michael Philbin, the 21-year-old son of Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde reports how McCarthy handled this with his team:
McCarthy had almost reached the end to his answer to Wisconsin State Journal columnist Tom Oates’ question – Do you have an idea of how this has affected the team emotionally? – about three minutes into the 10-minute press conference when his emotions got the best of him. (You can watch the press conference in its entirety on Packers.com.)
“We talked about that as a football team today and frankly the topic was the ability to separate. It’s part of our program. It’s nothing we haven’t spoken on before,” McCarthy replied. “We talked about the importance of having the ability to separate personal challenges and your professional challenges. And it really goes in line with the family-first philosophy. Everybody’s feeling it. There’s no question on what level. That’s really for the individual to speak on. But professionally, I’ve been very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish. We had a very productive day Monday with everything going on on Monday. And today just a ton of energy (at practice). Clearly from a tempo standpoint, the execution was probably one of our finer Wednesday practices.
“And I think the reality of this just gave everybody a punch in the heart to let you know the reality …” That’s when McCarthy stopped, took a deep breath, bowed his head and then continued, his lip quavering. “… how fortunate to be where we are.”
Today is Michael Philbin’s funeral. As for Sunday, said McCarthy, “Frankly, Joe and I haven’t even talked about his responsibility and will not. He’s with his family and he’ll return when he feels he’s ready to return.”
McCarthy has obviously surrounded himself with high-quality assistant coaches and players. No one with any character would equate the importance of a football game with the importance of your child’s life. And yet you have to believe Joe Philbin would feel absolutely awful about the possibility of his absence’s adversely affecting his team to the point where it lost Sunday. I believe the Packer players won’t let that happen.